La-Van Hawkins has always been in a hurry to make his fortune.
At age 7, he sold candy and sodas from his mother's apartment in a Chicago public housing project. By 13, he was so eager to make money that he dropped out of the Catholic high school he was attending on scholarship.
Now a multimillionaire at 34, Mr. Hawkins is ready to embark on a new venture to set up 25 Checkers drive-through restaurants in Baltimore in the next two years. The restaurants, all in the city, will cost between $13 million and $15 million and generate at least 1,500 jobs.
A big man with a deep bass voice, Mr. Hawkins is president and chief executive officer of La-Van Hawkins InnerCity Foods, which operates 25 Checkers in Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Baltimore units are part of a joint venture between Mr. Hawkins and Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc. to open 100 outlets over the next five years; other cities targeted are Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit.
While the chain owns 75 percent of the joint venture, Mr. Hawkins will be the managing partner with a 25 percent stake.
Mr. Hawkins' company kicked off the Baltimore operation with a party at the Harbor Court hotel Friday night for about 400 business people, city officials and community leaders. It's part of his policy of becoming part of whatever city he operates in. Mr. Hawkins, who has homes in Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, also plans to buy a house here, he said, probably in the Charles Village community.
"The inner city is the pioneer market today," Mr. Hawkins said, noting that the major chains are concentrating their efforts in the suburbs.
"I think what you are going to find in the period of the next five years . . . is you are going to find the total revitalization of the Baltimore market is going to start to take place downtown," Mr. Hawkins said. "And all the people who moved out to the suburban markets are going to start moving into town."
His approach has drawn warm support from Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "We're very excited about Mr. Hawkins' concept," Mr. Schmoke said. "He's really an outstanding, hard-working, hard-driving gentleman who has boundless energy and has done very well."
Besides tapping the inner-city market, Mr. Hawkins also wants to serve as a role model and find converts to his bootstrap philosophy.
"What I'm clearly trying to show the African-American community today is don't depend on the welfare system, don't depend on the government system, depend on yourself," he said. "And the way you do that is by making things happen."
Mr. Hawkins certainly practiced what he preaches. His message is pure Horatio Alger, learned, he said, by working as a youngster at a McDonald's restaurant owned by his uncle, Herman Petty.
"I look up and say thank God for my uncle, because he definitely gave me an appreciation for life and also gave me the appreciation that in America -- that if you are willing to work hard, get in and roll up your sleeves -- that it doesn't matter what color you are," he said.
He has come a long way since growing up at the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. "It is the most notorious and feared housing project in the country," Mr. Hawkins said.
His mother, Josephine Hawkins, recalled that there was gunfire outside her building "practically every other night."
When he was 9, Mr. Hawkins lost his alcoholic father to cirrhosis of the liver. That left young La-Van the man of the family, which consisted of his mother, his sister and himself. And much of the time he was left on his own while his mother worked three jobs.
But even at that age, he was in business, selling candy, potato chips and sodas, Josephine Hawkins said. And it wasn't just small change. "We could pay the gas bills and the phone bills and then buy clothes," she said.
By 10, he was working for his uncle. There Mr. Hawkins was in his element.
"McDonald's was fun for me," he said. "It created a work environment, it created an environment where I thought I was very, very productive," Mr. Hawkins said.
Even though he was a good student -- he reached the 10th grade by age 13 -- he decided to drop out, unwilling to wait six or seven years to finish college.
"Education was less of a priority with me because what was the priority was to be able to make money so I could move out of the surroundings that I was in," he said.
At the same time that he dropped out of school, he fled the housing projects, moving in with his maternal grandparents. "I was not very comfortable with the atmosphere that I was being brought up in," he recalls.
By 19 he was a supervisor at his uncle's McDonald's and he caught the eye of a Kentucky Fried Chicken executive who offered him a $500 bonus to become area supervisor. In 11 years with Kentucky Fried, he rose to regional vice president, supervising more than 650 stores, including those in Baltimore.